Obituaries

John Severson, 83, founder of Surfer magazine

severson-young-surfline.jpgSeverson as a young man. Surfline.com


John Severson, the Los Angeles-born founder of Surfer magazine, died on his sleep on Friday, the magazine announced. Severson was a maker of surfing films before he established Surfer magazine in 1960. He died at his home near Lahaina on Maui, in Hawaii, where he moved from Southern California in the 1970s. He had leukemia. Severson grew up in Pasadena, moved to San Clemente as a teenager and was first sent to Hawaii by the Army after he was drafted in 1956.

From Surfer magazine:

It is with a heavy heart that we announce John Severson, Founder of SURFER Magazine and patriarch of modern surf media, passed away Friday evening in his sleep. He was 83 years old.


Born in December of 1933 in Los Angeles, Severson began surfing at age 13 after his family moved to San Clemente. He released his first film, Surf, while serving in the U.S. Army in Honolulu. Severson would join Bruce Brown, Bud Browne, and Greg Noll as surfing’s original filmmakers in the late ’50s and early ’60s, touring productions like Surf Fever, Big Wednesday, and Going My Wave up and down the California coastline.

It was Severson’s promotional artwork for his films (a highly-talented visual artist, Severson received an M.A. in art education from Long Beach State College in 1956) that led to his foray in surf publishing. He designed a 36-page magazine composed of surf photos, cartoons, sketches, and more to advertise the release of Surf Fever in 1960. He would call it The Surfer, later becoming the Surfer Quarterly in 1961. The success of the magazine eventually allowed Severson to bring on staff members that included cartoonist Rick Griffin, photographer Ron Stoner, and editors Drew Kampion and Steve Pezman—the veritable Mount Rushmore of surf media, with Severson himself as the architect. “Before John Severson, there was no ‘surf media,’ no ‘surf industry’ and no ‘surf culture’—at least not in the way we understand it today,” SURFER editor Sam George wrote in 1999.

“In this crowded world,” Severson wrote in the very first issue of SURFER, “the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.” The legacy he inspired with that pursuit—to seek and find the perfect wave—will forever live on.

The Surfline website pays tribute to Severson:

Before John Severson, there was really no surf art, no surf magazines, no real surf films, no surfwear industry, no pro surfing, no Surfrider Foundation, no surf culture as we know it. In a very large sense, he made it all happen by synthesizing the sport of surfing into various expressions of his art.

Surfline posted that when President Richard Nixon moved in next door in San Clemente, "Severson became overwhelmed and opted for change. He sold Surfer in 1972 and moved with his wife and two daughters to Maui, where he resumed his passionate pursuit of photography and painting. He surfed and then started windsurfing. He designed and launched Wind Surf magazine and, for several years, contributed art and photos, making it the leader in its field."

The longboard renaissance of the '90s and the accompanying era of nostalgia brought renewed interest and appreciation to Severson's surf art. His oil and watercolor paintings (as well as his block prints) grew in demand, and he designed hundreds of prints for Kahala's Artist Series Hawaiian shirts. (To see samples of his work, visit: surferart.com).

The New York Times obituary:

John Severson, a pioneer of modern surf culture who founded Surfer magazine in 1962 and created paintings, films and photographs depicting the surfing lifestyle, died on Friday at his home outside Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. He was 83....


Surfing was a niche sport in America when Mr. Severson, having surfed on a redwood board in his native Southern California as a teenager, set out to portray its essence as a counter to the 1959 Hollywood film “Gidget” (a forerunner of the 1960s beach party films with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello) and the early music of the Beach Boys, which he regarded as a “cheap, honky look at surfing.”

He believed that the popular portrayal of surfing spawned an image that led to municipal restrictions on serious wave riders.

“The Gidget-inspired kids wanted to go surfing, or at least be a part of this underground culture,” Mr. Severson recalled in his 2014 book, “John Severson’s SURF.”

“Their role models were Hollywood stereotypes, and the sport quickly picked up a bad name. Wannabes came into the sport as rebels, pranksters, vandals, and thieves, wearing Nazi imagery — helmets and iron crosses. Surfers hated those Hollywood surf films, and I could see that Surfer could create a truer image of the sport.”

The NYT says that Severson's films included “Surf,” “Surf Safari,” “Surf Fever” and “Pacific Vibrations.” The posters he designed for them became collectors’ items, the paper says.


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John Severson, 83, founder of Surfer magazine
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